New Exhibit | Black Deaf Americans: History, Culture, and Education

Poster of exhibit titled Black Deaf Americans.

Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) has recently mounted an exhibit focusing on Black Deaf Americans to celebrate Black History Month.

Black Deaf people have one of the most unique cultures in the world. The Black Deaf Community is largely shaped by two cultures and communities: Deaf and African-American. Some Black Deaf individuals view themselves as members of both communities. Since both communities are viewed by the larger, predominately hearing and White society as comprising a minority community, Black Deaf persons often experience an even greater loss of recognition, racial discrimination and communication barriers coming from both communities.

Little has been written about the Black Deaf community. Even though segregated schools existed until the mid-1950s, no historical analysis of that experience, its people, or events has been written. Only a handful of memoirs by Black Deaf individuals have been published. Recent interest in Black Deaf sign language has produced a seminal work on the subject, The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL, but much more research needs to be pursued. This exhibit seeks to highlight the history, experiences, and accomplishments of Black Deaf Americans through six themes: segregated schools for Black Deaf students, memoirs by Black Deaf adults, incarceration of Black Deaf, Black Deaf sign language, Notable Black Deaf, and artwork of Black Deaf. Some of the archival material exhibited is extremely rare and difficult to find. Several publications on exhibit are considered rare books. Even some recent titles on exhibit are difficult to find.


Between the 1870s and 1970s, Deaf schools and departments were segregated for Black and White students, and they remained so until after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. These facilities, such as the Virginia School for Colored Deaf and Blind Children built in 1909, were documented by a rare postcard featured in the exhibition, pictured below. The nature of ephemera is unfortunately germane to the history of Black Deaf segregation, since the school buildings were demolished in 2017.

Postcard depicting the Virginia School for Colored Deaf and Blind Children, Newport News, ca. 1909
Postcard depicting the Virginia School for Colored Deaf and Blind Children, Newport News, ca. 1909 (once integrated in 1964 it became the Virginia School for the Deaf, Blind, and Multi-Disabled at Hampton) Administration building (left), Boys’ dormitory (right), C. T. Holtzclaw, architect/builder


Black Deaf authors have written first-hand accounts of their experiences as individuals and members of the Black Deaf community, the first being Dr. Ernest Hairston and Linwood Smith’s Black and Deaf in America (1983).

Books on display in exhibit.
Books on view: Wright, M. (1999). Sounds like home: Growing up Black and deaf in the South. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press; Hairston, E., & Smith, Linwood. (1983). Black and deaf in America: Are we that different. Silver Spring, Md.: T.J.; Brown, M. (2013). On the beat of truth: A hearing daughter’s stories of her black deaf parents. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.


Justice and legal professionals often lack Deaf cultural competency, which leads to disproportionate convictions, abuse, and isolation of Deaf Americans in the criminal justice system. This problem is magnified for Black Deaf Americans. This exhibit highlights accounts of institutional traumas experienced by Black Deaf Americans, such as John Doe No. 24 who, Black, Deaf, and Mute, was arrested as a teenager in 1945 and institutionalized in the Illinois mental health care system until his death in 1993.

Books on display in exhibit.
Books on view: Burch, S., & Joyner, Hannah. (2007). Unspeakable: The story of Junius Wilson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press; Bakke, D. (2000). God knows his name: The true story of John Doe no. 24. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Black ASL

The Black ASL Project carried out by Gallaudet University’s Department of Linguistics and Department of ASL and Deaf Studies includes a team of researchers seeking to describe the linguistic varieties within ASL used by Black Americans. These differences are rich and may include general semantic differences carried over from spoken Black English, such as the sign for “bad” meaning “really good,” but Black ASL also features a larger signing space and use of facial grammar (Sellers, 2012).

Books on display in exhibit.
Book on view: McCaskill, C. (2011). The hidden treasure of Black ASL: Its history and structure. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

We invite you to view this exhibit during February 2018 highlighting one of America’s most unique but underrepresented cultures.


Sellers, F. S. (2012, September 17). Sign language that African Americans use is different from that of whites. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

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